Changing Culture

In this issue of ChinaSource we look broadly at culture in the Mainland, with our authors asking, from several different angles, “What has changed?”

Given China’s rapid transformation over the past three decades, the more appropriate question would seem to be, “What hasn’t changed?” Even the casual observer of developments in China could not help but experience a sense of cultural whiplash, with social trends seemingly lurching from one extreme to another.

Under Deng Xiaoping politically enforced austerity gave way to “To get rich is glorious,” paving the way for a rapidly growing middle class. The Chinese family was turned on its head, with “little emperors” at the bottom of an inverted pyramid being practically revered by multiple sets of older relatives. China’s proud intellectual tradition reemerged after Mao, yet intellectuals soon discovered that the traditional routes to success through academic advancement did not necessarily lead to either a respected position in society or to job security, prompting more than a few to xia hai, or “jump into the sea” of entrepreneurship in order to secure their futures. Meanwhile globalization and the rapid growth of the internet have created numerous opportunities for cultural interflow, resulting in the creation of a new hybrid vocabulary as foreign ideas are adopted into Chinese.

These along with many other cultural changes too numerous to list here suggest that China’s reform and opening policy has, in fact, succeeded in permanently altering what could rightfully be called the most enduring culture in the history of human civilization.

Yet, as Jerry Yu argues in his cover article, the profound change observable in the most visible aspects of culture the leaves/flowers/fruit, to use Yu’s terminology may be but an outward adaptation to changes in economic system and the effects of globalization, while the root remains as strong as ever.

What, then, of the branches, which transmit the essence of what comes from the root out through the leaves, flowers, and fruit? Traditionally the branches have consisted in China’s education system, child-rearing practices, and a shared acceptance of a set of values regarding what is right and proper in society, drawn largely from Confucian thinking and handed down generationally through a vast collection of aphorisms, well-known folk stories, and a shared interpretation of history. Despite changes in education and in the family structure, much of this transmission mechanism has remained fairly intact.

Even the internet, assumed by many in the West to be the key to change in China, has in many ways served to reinforce traditional cultural mores. Particularly when nationalism comes into play, the collective chatroom response to international incidents or even domestic phenomena often mirrors traditional values of the kind Yu describes.

The unprecedented spread of the gospel during the past three decades introduces a new variable into this ongoing cycle of cultural reinforcement and adaptation. Whether it will ultimately have a fundamental reorienting effect on the human-centered root, or simply be another add-on to the ever-diverse fruit and foliage, remains to be seen.

Image Credit: Journal Entry (Joel Montes de Oca) by Chris Lott, on Flickr

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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio